Local bonds: Yes, yes, yes and no

Architect Tom Bates queried students at Astoria Middle School about what they like and don't like about their learning spaces.

Clatsop County taxpayers have a lot on their plate to consider in the Nov. 6 election.

Public officials are asking their constituents to make big investments in bond proposals for Astoria and Warrenton schools, a new county jail and expanded Sunset Empire recreation facilities.

We believe public safety and good schools are the most important services that local governments can deliver. They are crucial investments in our community’s future. The recreation facilities are more optional.

The bond measures for the Astoria and Warrenton school districts — $70 million and $38.5 million, respectively — are both worthy of your “yes” vote.

Both proposals address critical needs and have been carefully vetted, with considerable public involvement in their development.

In Warrenton, for example, instead of asking for a massive bond to move all of the district’s schools to higher ground out of the tsunami inundation zone — as Seaside did — officials chose a phased approach. The $38.5 million will purchase a master campus and build a new middle school to relieve chronic overcrowding at the grade school. It would raise property taxes by an estimated $2.03 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $507 on a home valued at $250,000.

Future bonds will move the rest of Warrenton’s schools, as the city’s fast-growing population and increasing home prices gradually lower the per capita tax burden on voters over time.

The decision to go after smaller bonds in a phased approach was based on public input from residents who said they support moving the schools but are on fixed incomes, said Debbie Morrow, the Warrenton-Hammond School Board chairwoman.

“We couldn’t morally go out for a bond that our residents could not afford,” she said.

Astoria’s bond would pay for $45 million in modernization and security improvements at Astoria Middle School, $20 million at Astoria High School and $9 million at John Jacob Astor Elementary School. Lewis and Clark Elementary School and Capt. Robert Gray School would receive smaller improvements.

Astoria voters last approved $21.4 million in bonds in 2000 to build Lewis and Clark and improve the high school. The bonds have decreased in cost through refinancing and increases in property values, and are now estimated to cost $1.83 per $1,000 of assessed value. The new bonds would begin after the older ones expire in 2020, raising taxes to $2.83 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $707 on a home worth $250,000.

Consultants identified more than $80 million in needs for Astoria schools, but a facilities committee — including 30 community and district staff members — prioritized projects and whittled the recommended ask down to $70 million.

We have toured both the Warrenton and Astoria facilities. We believe the requests are reasonable and sorely needed, particularly the safety modifications in light of recent mass school shootings around the country.

The $20 million bond for a new county jail, with an estimated tax rate of 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — $53 on a $250,000 home — is a bargain compared to the school bonds.

While the timing is unfortunate, this shouldn’t be a “schools versus jail” decision.

The real decision is public safety. Is it important to you? Inmates released early from our chronically overcrowded jail have killed people. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact.

Our jail, with only 60 beds, is hardly a deterrent for criminals in our county, who know they won’t have to serve time behind bars.

We believe the former Oregon Youth Authority facility in Warrenton presents an historic opportunity to expand to 148 beds at half the cost of building new. It would be shortsighted not to take advantage of that opportunity.

The project would utilize the existing youth facility for staff offices, intake space, food service and 20 inmate beds, while placing 128 beds in a new adjoining section with a more efficient, and safer, layout. Separate space would be available to hold inmates with behavioral issues and contagious illnesses.

It sounds like a great idea — to bring additional preschool and recreational facilities to members of the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District.

The recreation district is presenting a 20-year, $20 million bond plan to add a second-floor walking track, indoor racket courts and fitness areas, and reconfigure administrative areas, classrooms and storage space, among other upgrades.

The timing couldn’t be worse.

Seaside taxpayers are still reeling from the big hit their property taxes took by the passage of the $99.7 million school bond in 2016. With a county bond for a much-needed and long-overdue jail facility in Warrenton, residents are being asked to bear too much too soon.

In addition, there remain too many open-ended questions about the proposed facility to make this a good bet in any economic environment.

With the neighboring Broadway Middle School slated for sale by the Seaside School District, the recreation district may yet consider some sort of deal with the school district or potential buyers to redevelop part of the existing structure, classroom or recreation space.

Revenue projections for the proposed facility fail to show how the project could break even, much less show a profit, and ongoing expenses for a larger facility — both in personnel and operation costs — could deliver hidden costs to come.

We’d like to see upgrades at the facility honed and communication with patrons improved. That won’t come by throwing money at a big new building without a much broader base of support.

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